Photo Credit: Jewish Press

There is a story of a man who wanted to be successful. After asking around, he heard about a guru in a far-off town who held the secret to success. He immediately set off to find him, and after weeks of searching, he finally tracked him down and knocked on his door. The guru opened the door, and before the guru could even greet him, he blurted out: “All I want is to be successful. What is the secret to success?” The guru slowly looked him up and down, before saying in a soft voice: “Meet me at the beach tomorrow at 5:00 a.m., and I will tell you the secret to success.”

The man showed up at the beach bright and early the next morning, wearing his best suit. He should have worn his bathing suit, because as soon as the guru saw him, he smiled and said, “Walk into the water.” The man was confused, but after all the trouble he’d gone through to find this guru, he wasn’t about to walk away. He waded into the water until it came up to his knees, with the guru following behind him. “OK,” he said, “I’m in the water. Now can you please tell me how to be successful?” The guru stared back – no expression on his face – and simply said, “Keep walking.” Becoming more and more confused, the man took a few more steps into the ocean. He and the guru were now shoulder deep in the water. He turned back to the guru and said again: “I followed your instructions. Now can you please tell me how to be successful?” Without skipping a beat, the guru repeated: “Keep walking.”


He took a few more steps; he was now nose deep. He was about to turn around once more and ask the guru what was going on, when his head was suddenly forced underneath the water. He realized that the guru had taken hold of his neck and was holding him under the water. The man struggled and fought, but he couldn’t break loose; he couldn’t breathe! He continued fighting but realized that he would soon lose consciousness. Just as his vision began to fade, the guru yanked him up from under the water. The guru held the man’s face parallel to his own and asked, “When you were underwater, what did you want most?”

The man replied, “All I wanted was to breathe!”

The guru stared deep into his eyes and said: “When you want to succeed as much as you want to breathe, then you will be successful.”


The Power of Ratzon

Desire, the most powerful human faculty, lies at the very root of the human being. The Ramchal, Rav Chaim of Volozhin, and other Jewish thinkers explain that what you want is who you are. And yet, we seem to have conflicting wants. On the one hand, we each have a deep yearning to transcend our limitations, to expand beyond our current state, to connect to something infinite, spiritual, beyond this world. Yet, at the same time, human beings have a deep craving for the most mundane, physical, and transient pleasures. Which of these is our true desire, our true ratzon?

  • Perhaps, at root, we are purely spiritual, and our pull toward earthly things is simply a corruption of our true nature.
  • Or maybe we are simply physical beings, and our pull toward physicality is a reflection of our limited nature.

But perhaps we are more than either of these drives. Maybe our deepest root, our deepest desire, is connected to both the spiritual and the physical. This leads us to an important question: What is the meaning and purpose of our desire for physicality, and how does it relate to our drive for spirituality?


Im Lavan Garti

When Yaakov reunites with Eisav after living with Lavan, he proclaims: “Im Lavan garti – with Lavan I have lived” (Bereishis 32:5). Rashi explains this statement to mean that Yaakov maintained all of his learning and mitzvah observance while living in Lavan’s household. Lavan was a crooked, manipulative cheat, and living in his household was a stark departure from the honesty and righteousness of Yitzchak’s household, thus posing a potential challenge to Yaakov’s spiritual vitality. Therefore, it was a tremendous accomplishment for Yaakov to maintain his spiritual growth while living in Lavan’s house for twenty years. How did he accomplish such a feat?

If we trace our way back to Yaakov’s journey from his parents’ home, we’ll recall that he spent fourteen years learning in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever between leaving his parents’ home and arriving at Lavan’s domain (see Rashi, Bereishis 28:11 and Bereishis Rabbah 68:11). Why was this time necessary? Yaakov had spent his entire life surrounded by the Torah and values of Yitzchak and Avraham. Shouldn’t this have been enough to prepare him for the trials and tribulations that he would face in the house of Lavan? What did Shem and Ever offer that Yaakov had not already received from Avraham and Yitzchak?


Avraham’s Gift to the World

In order to understand this, let us take a step back and understand Avraham’s worldview and his unique approach to spirituality. If someone were to ask you, “What is Avraham famous for?” your immediate response would likely be “monotheism.” Many assume that Avraham taught the world of Hashem’s existence. However, this cannot be the case. Adam clearly knew that Hashem existed, as did Noach, who lived just a couple of generations before Avraham. Even if you want to say that people forgot this in the time between Noach and Avraham, we know this is not true: Shem and Ever were both alive before Avraham and were teaching Torah. If Avraham was not the first to teach of Hashem’s existence, what did he introduce to the world?

Some suggest that while Shem and Ever learned Torah, they did so in isolation, removed from society. Thus, Avraham was the first to openly teach Hashem’s existence to the world. In a sense, Avraham was the first “baal kiruv,” the first to bring Torah to the masses. While this may be true, and is indicative of Avraham’s nature, there is another layer to this profound topic. In order to understand Avraham’s unique worldview, we have to take a step back and study different spiritual perspectives.


Spiritual Perspectives

Most spiritual schools of thought are focused wholly on the spiritual; they view the physical world as lowly and dangerous. They therefore claim that the physical should be avoided to the greatest extent possible. In order to live a spiritual life, one must escape the physical, completely rejecting their physical nature. Therefore, spiritual systems such as Buddhism prescribe meditation, abstinence, and the suppression of physical desire. In such a system, the ideal is to sit isolated on a mountaintop and meditate on one’s navel.

Historically, this was the spiritual system of Shem and Ever. They understood the dangers of the physical world; they witnessed the evil and destruction of both the Dor Ha’mabul (Generation of the Flood) and Dor Ha’haflagah (Generation of the Dispersion) and concluded that in order to maintain their spirituality, they had to remove themselves from the physical, lowly world.


Avraham’s Revelation

Avraham, however, introduced a novel, idealistic approach to life. He understood that while the physical can be dangerous if misused, the ideal is not to transcend the physical but to use the physical to reflect something higher. In other words, he introduced the ideal Jewish spiritual system.

Think, how many mitzvos are commandments of the mind? Incredibly few! You can count them on your hands: Believe in Hashem, love Hashem, be in awe of Hashem, don’t be jealous, and just a few others. The overwhelming majority of mitzvos are physical actions that connect you to the spiritual Source – Hashem. The act is physical, while the spiritual intention and mindset must be infused into it. We eat matzah, shake a lulav, blow shofar, and wear tefillin; all actions, all physical. We don’t believe in transcending the physical, we wish to use the physical to connect to the transcendent.

This is because the physical world is deeply connected to the spiritual world. Every physical action affects the spiritual realm, creating cosmic ripple effects. This can be compared to when one plays a piano. When a piano key is pressed, a hammer inside the piano strikes the string below, generating the musical sound. The key itself does not create the musical note; it causes a chain reaction, and the sound comes from a different, albeit connected, location.

The same is true of the physical world. Every action creates a corresponding reaction in the spiritual world. In essence, our physical world is like an upside-down puppet show. When a puppeteer pulls the strings from above, he causes the puppets to act down below. When we perform physical actions in the physical world, we create cosmic effects in the spiritual realm above.

This is what Avraham introduced to the world. Avraham’s mitzvah was bris milah, the mitzvah that epitomizes the idea of taking the most physical and potentially animalistic organ and uplifting it to the spiritual. As the Maharal explains, bris milah is performed specifically on the eighth day as it represents the process of transcending the natural (Tiferes Yisrael, chaps. 1-2, 25). Seven is the number of the natural; this is why all physical and natural components of this world are built off sevens: seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, and seven colors in the spectrum of light. Eight represents going beyond the natural, which is why bris milah is performed on the eighth day; we take the physical and use it to transcend.


Shem and Ever

We can now understand what Yaakov gained from learning with Shem and Ever. While Avraham represented spirituality that is deeply connected to the physical world, Shem and Ever represented a spirituality that transcends this world, a spirituality that Yaakov needed to connect to before continuing on his journey. Yaakov was about to enter a spiritually hostile environment – Lavan’s domain – an environment that contradicted everything Yaakov knew and stood for. While Yaakov represented and embodied the principle of truth (Titein emes l’Yaakov [Micha 7:20]), Lavan was a man of deceit, one whose speech did not reveal any higher inner truth. Just as Lavan’s words were disconnected from higher truth, Lavan served to disconnect the physical from the spiritual. In order to protect himself and his spiritual growth during this phase (and successfully build the foundation for Klal Yisrael and the twelve Shevatim), Yaakov needed to learn from those who had succeeded in such hostile conditions. Shem and Ever experienced the evils of both the Dor Ha’mabul and the Dor Ha’haflagah, and they had built a system of learning that protected themselves from such challenges – a Torah that was disconnected from the challenges of the physical world. While Yaakov had already embraced Avraham’s Torah and ideology, he also needed some time with Shem and Ever in order to succeed in the next stage of his journey. Each provided something essential to Yaakov’s development.


The Idealism of Holistic Spirituality

At root, we have a dual desire:

  • To experience a completely spiritual, transcendent existence.
  • To experience a physical, limited existence.

But when we synthesize these two desires, when we use the physical to fully reflect our spiritual purpose, we live an extraordinary life of true oneness. This, however, is not an easy path. Living a holistic, synthesized life requires idealism and constant willpower. It is much easier to transcend the physical world – to escape its temptations and dangers. If we are to engage and uplift the physical, we must be mindful, purposeful, and vigilant.

Going back to our introductory “guru” story, Yaakov was only able to succeed in his mission because he desired it with every fiber of his being. Rashi quotes the Midrash saying that not once during his entire fourteen years of learning in the Yeshiva of Shem and Ever did Yaakov go to bed. Every night, he would fall asleep at his seat, immersed in Torah and spiritual growth (Bereishis 28:11; Bereishis Rabbah 68:11). Yaakov wanted this, he lived this, he became this. He was able to build the ultimate synthesis, fully transcending the physical world, like Shem and Ever, and yet connecting the transcendent to the physical, like Avraham. He lived a life of complete harmony (tiferes). Both Avraham and the house of Shem and Ever were specialists in their form of spirituality; Yaakov was the ultimate harmony.


What Do You Want?

One of the most daunting but worthwhile exercises you can perform is the “want exercise.” It requires you to ask yourself: “What do I want in life?” Be completely honest with yourself. After answering, ask yourself, “Why do I want that?” Again, you must be completely honest. Then ask yourself again, “why do I want that?” Keep doing this until you get to something that you want for no external reason, something that you want simply because you want it. This desire, this want, is your underlying desire; it is what’s driving everything else in your life. This is your very root, this is who you truly are.

According to Jewish thought, the underlying want (ratzon) within each of us is to fulfill our unique purpose in life, to actualize our potential, to live the life we are meant to live. Essentially, our deepest ratzon is to fulfill the ratzon of Hashem. Hashem designed us in such a way that this type of life – one of Torah, growth, and contribution – generates immense happiness, as well as feelings of fulfillment and deep contentment. So many mistakenly interpret their underlying life drive to be happiness, and then they try to fulfill that desire through all types of other outlets, like money, fame, or physical pleasure. But the root yearning within each of us is a genuine expression of our higher and best self, our tzelem Elokim. Our goal in life is to get fully in touch with this root want, to harness it, and then fully express it into the world. Happiness is not our root want, it’s what manifests when we are in touch with our root want – becoming our best and highest selves.

So, close your eyes and ask yourself honestly: “What do I really want in life? Who do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to live?” Now, open your eyes, and go make that your reality.


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Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, “The Journey to Your Ultimate Self,” which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an educator and speaker who has lectured internationally on topics of Torah thought, Jewish medical ethics, psychology, and leadership. He is also the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy, the transformative online self-development course based on the principles of high-performance psychology and Torah. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received Semicha from Yeshiva University’s RIETS, a master’s degree in education from Azrieli Graduate School, and a master’s degree in Jewish Thought from Bernard Revel Graduate School. He then spent a year studying at Harvard as an Ivy Plus Scholar. He currently lives in Chicago with his wife and son where he is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: